Tuesday, June 22, 2010


There were at least two reasons to vote for Proposition 14—the constitutional amendment that promised to save Californians from themselves by making primary elections non-partisan.
First, given the state’s fiscal fiasco, it’s hard to think that voters could do worse under an open primary system than they’ve done under the current set-up. Second, the fact that Nancy Pelosi was against the proposition pretty much guaranteed that the idea had merit.

Despite the fact that a broken clock is right twice a day, it’s unlikely that Speaker Pelosi wouldn’t know where her partisan interests lay when it came to this electoral reform. Pelosi was joined in opposition by the California Teachers Association and other public employees unions that currently own Sacramento.

Now that Prop. 14 has been approved by a 54-46 per cent margin, it will be a while before Californians can judge whether the political means are (as Gandhi suggested) “the ends in the making.”

Unfortunately, anyone who peruses a pre-election report released by the Center for Governmental Studies will probably conclude that the primary rearrangement act is unlikely to significantly change the ideological complexion of our legislators in Sacramento.

The study shows that, based on registration, about one-third of all legislative districts are “supermajority” districts where one party has 25% more registered voters than the other. Not surprisingly, all of those supermajority districts are Democratic—most in the Bay area or Los Angeles county. (No wonder Pelosi and her union buddies weren’t wild about this proposition.)

But before anyone starts popping champagne corks, the study also shows that in 8 of the 19 state Senate and Assembly elections since 2006 where voters in the general election would have chosen between two candidates of the same party, the more moderate of the two primary candidates was already the party nominee—and in only 4 of the 19 races was the vote close enough that participation by independents or crossovers would likely have made a difference.

Given the fact that none of the San Diego and Riverside county districts are supermajority Republican, it seems the only local ramification of Prop. 14 will be to force the 6 to 9 per cent of Libertarian voters in Assembly Districts 74, 75, and 77 to cast their November ballots for a Democrat or a Republican—or to abstain from voting.

Perhaps over time open primaries might have a salutary effect, but they’ve not yet worked any magic in Washington state—nor in Louisiana where something like an open primary law was instituted in 1975 precisely to protect Democrat incumbents.

California’s next deus ex machina will be 2012’s non-partisan redistricting.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


Recently State Senator Dennis Hollingsworth joined with Gov. Schwarzenegger in penning an article that calls for significant reform of California’s public employee pension system. That system, according to a group of Stanford University researchers, puts the state’s unfunded pension liabilities at a staggering 500 billion dollars.

Hollingsworth’s SB 919 is the specific legislation designed to transform journalistic rhetoric into government policy. The bill's provisions only apply to new hires. Among other features, it puts the retirement eligibility age for non-public safety employees at 65 and changes the system for calculating benefits for all employees from the highest single year’s pay to an average of the highest three years.

Other measures reduce the state’s contribution to retiree health care costs and add five years to the length of service one needs to be fully vested for health care benefits.

Today it isn’t unusual for public employees to retire at age 50 with annual pensions that amount to 90 percent of their annual pay. In some cases, by taking advantage of provisions that allow employees to “spike” their salary, yearly pensions that exceed an employee’s largest salary are possible.

A fire chief in Contra Costa County provided the poster-boy example of the “spiking” that’s common at both the state and local level. In this case sick leave, almost two years of administrative leave, an auto allowance, standby pay and additional management pay were all part of the formula that placed the 51-year-old retiree’s annual benefit at $284,000--$63,000 more than his final year’s salary.

Assuming the ex-chief lives another 30 years, his total pension payout will amount to over 8.5 million dollars—not counting adjustments for inflation.

Predictably, public employee unions that have a stranglehold on the large Democrat majority in Sacramento oppose Hollingsworth’s proposed pension cutbacks. One political observer noted that there’s no chance the legislature will embrace even this modest new-hire bill.

Representatives of the supposedly neutral California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) testified against SB 919 and put a happy face on debt obligations that currently cost the state over 3 billion dollars a year.

On the other hand, Schwarzenegger’s chief pension advisor, David Crane, reminded the committee of the CalPERS plan in 1999 that retroactively increased pensions and put California taxpayers on the hook to pay vast sums if the Dow stock average didn’t hit 25,000 by 2009 and 28 million by 2099!

Today’s elections will mean little if nothing is done to break the vicious circle whereby public employee unions buy politicians who then feed the beast that created them.